In 1974, the slate was the thing in Prince George's County politics. Money, brains, good looks, issues - these helped, occasionally, but they did not insure electoral success.Getting on the slate of candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party organization was essential.
There were 65 contested elections in the county that year and all but three of them were won by members of the organization's "Blue Ribbon" slate. That is a winning average of .954, a figure that - at least on paper - put the county Democrats in a class with their brethren in such traditional bastions of one-party politics as Baltimore, Jersey City and Chicago.
Shortly after the 1974 sweep, the leaders of the county party said that it was the slate itself, and the process that was used to create it, that were responsible for the results. "It is a truism of Prince George's politics," said county Democratic strategist Peter O'Malley, "that the people here vote for the slate, not the individual candidate."
When it was formed, the slate was said to be an important reformation and a move toward harmony. Instead of having several slates bound by geography or ideology, there was one slate that was supposed to be Democratically selected amalgam of the best that all the factions within the county had to offer - an example of "democracy at its finest," O'Malley once said.
Apparently, it was not fine enough to be repeated this year. The party leadership's Breakfast Club, an informal policymaking group that includes the county executive, the party chairman eight state senators and few other elected officials, formally declared the Blue Ribbon process "dead" at a gathering last month.
"It's a completely different situation this year," said Lance Billingsley, the county chairman who is responsible for developing an alternative to the Blue Ribbon process. "In '74, we started without the incumbents and without much money. We brought everyone onto one slate out of political necessity. It was the right thing for that year.
"But this year, we have all this incumbents, we have a gubernatorial candidate (State Senate President Stony H. Hayer of Prince George's County) and we will have the money. To have a selection committee pick the incumbents would be a charade."
The advantages of slate politics are obvious to its proponents and opponents alike. As one delegate said: "There is no way an individual candidate acn compete against an entrenched organization, with its pooled money, its workers, its common identification, in a countrywide election. In a House of Delegates race restricted to one district, you have a chance. But in a County Council race, or central committee race, forget it."
The slate was selected by a special 15-member committee that had representatives from all the different factions - conservatives form south county, liberals from north country, old people, labor leaders, women, veteran party workers and blacks. This committee held pulbic hearings, listened to 140 potential candidates, and then gave the nod to the 65 it preferred.
Thomas Farrington, a partner in O'Malley's law firm who was then the party chairman, made much of the selection committee. "Slate making has always been a closed process," Farrington said. "Opening up the process in an area where people distrust politics will make us look good. The Republicans aren't doing it."
But Farrington was unable to convince everyone. There were questions raised as to whether the selection committee was making the choices or serving as a convenient front for the four or five most powerful O'Malley, Hoyer, County Executive L. Winfield M. Kelly Jr. and attorney William V. Meyers.
Henry Arrington, the mayor of Seat Pleasant in Prince Georges, was one of two blacks on the selection committee. "It didn't take me long to recognize that I was being used," Arrington said in a recent interview.
"It happened while we sat there and started to nominate elegates from my area (the predominantly black 26th District). I wanted Tommie Broadwater, Frank Santangelo and Nathaniel Exxon. Farrington came out of nowhere with someone else instead of Exxon. No one seemed to know a thing about this person except him, but when it came time to vote he had seven hard votes: How could that have happened?"
Kay Bienen was the other side of the table. She appeared before the selection committee as a potential delegate candidate from the Laurel-based 21st District, with the endorsement of the district caucus already in her pocket.
"But I was told beforehand that I wouldn't get on the slate," Beinen recalled. "I was told that you couldn't elect two women from the same district (Pauline Menes was an incumbent delegate from the district). They told me that right out. I was also told, more indirectly, that they couldn't elect three Jews from the same district (Bienen, Menes and state Sen. Arthur Dorman are Jewish)."
Bienen, who was one of three candidates to beat the slate and is now a member of the House of Delegates, said she found it uncomfortable to refer to "an amorphous they." "But there is such a thing out here," she added. "The they changes from time to time, it appears now to be a little more Kelly than O'Malley and Hoyer. But it's there."
Gerald T. McDonough, a member of the County Council, also felt the presence of an "amorphous they" whe he appeared before the selection committee in 1974.
"It was a very strange process, almost mystical," said McDonough, who is known affectionately by Kelly, his mentor, as "Ger-Boh." "I can't even explain it to you now. The selection committee was part of the process, and it wasn't. The leaders gave the nod, and they didn't. It was just a very unreal kind of thing."
One of McDonough's political pals, John A. Lally, the chief spokesman for County Executive Kelly, said the process was not really that mystical. "When you get down to it," said Lally, "the Blue Ribbon selection process was a little deceptive. Basically, four or five people made the slate."
Those four or five people still maintain that they did not run the show in 1974.
Leo Green, a delegate from Bowie who beat the slate in 1974, is one of the few elected officials in Prince George's to express fundamental questions about organization slatemaking. Even his maverick colleague, Bienen, said that she would not run in a primary without the support of her district caucus, an admission that she accepts a certain amount of preselection.
"The Democrats around here can't stand primaries, they do everything possible to avoid them," said Green. "But when you have a county where one party is so clearly dominant, the primaries should be the most important elections. They should be completely open, without any interference whatsoever from the party machinery."
According to Green, the party leadership attempted to interfere with his political career several months ago.
"I got approached by someone who asked if he could speak with me in confidence. I met with him under that agreement, so I can't say who it was," said Green. "This person said that if I agreed to support Steny for governor and remain in my delegate position, I would have no problem getting on the slate. He said all the elected officials were being presented the same offer."
Green rejected the offer. He plans to challenge Sen. Edward T. Conroy for the 24th District Senate seat.
"I'm going to end up fighting the slate again," said Green, "and in a sense running against my own party. It makes me wonder what the Democratic Party really is. Does it really need to be so monolithic that it will tolerate only one slate in a primary? If every incumbent is guaranteed reelection, how open is the process?"